And now, ladies and
gentlemen, we invite you to return with us to those thrilling days of
yesteryear, when the skull and crossbones struck terror into the hearts of
ocean-faring men everywhere... A time when bloodthirsty pirates roamed the
watery reaches of the warm Caribbean and beyond in search of golden treasure and
adventure... A time long ago when two women met their destiny on the high
seas... in an extraordinary age of BLOOD and THUNDER
Chapter One: Destiny Rides the Waves
Chill salt spray struck her in the face as she turned away from the rail. ''Five points to starboard!''
''Five points to starboard, aye!,'' the pilot answered, adjusting the great ship's wheel to its new course. The woman turned back, continuing her contemplation of the waves that foamed and raced away beneath the galley's keel.
Graciela O'Malley was the unlikely captain of the pirate vessel Sans Quartier, inheriting both the ship and her position upon the death of her father --- the notorious buccanneer, Jorge ''El Tiburon'' Dominguez. Half-Irish and half-Spanish, a bastard by-blow gotten on a port harlot, Graciela had taken her mother's last name three years ago... after instigating and leading the mutiny that had ended in El Tiburon's death.
The Sans Quartier was a three-masted galley with a raked back hull; built for speed and manuverability, under full sail - as she was now - the ship cleaved the sparkling Caribbean waters like a sword. Canvas sails flapped, snapping sharply before belling out with the wind, driving her through the blue-green sea; although a bank of oars ran down either side of the hull, they hadn't been needed. The Sans Quartier was a privater and looked every inch the part - a wolf rather than a pampered lapdog.
Below her position on the quarterdeck, Graciela could see her men sharpening weapons, priming cannons and flintlocks, gathering ammunition from the ship's stores, readying grappling irons and boarding planks. They prepared for the coming battle with the intense concentration of professionals; every one of Graciela's pirate crew was fully blooded and very experienced. In a profession where gangrene, fevers and tainted food or water killed more men than any cannon shot; where few survived beyond the age of thirty - Graciela's men were hardened and virtually heartless... and as willing to kill for a copper groat as for a gold doubloon.
Graciela, despite her sex, was just as hard. She had to be in order to survive among the ravening and near-rabid sea dogs she commanded.
Peering out at the horizon, keeping the British merchantman that was their prey in sight, Graciela was completely unaware of the picture she presented. The brisk wind of the ship's passage blew her loose white shirt and dark trousers against her body, outlining generous breasts and full womanly curves. Despite her small stature - she had inherited her Irish mother's petite but wiry frame - the pirate captain was muscular and strong, well skilled with cutlass, flintlock and other weaponry. Blue-black hair, straight as silk, was worn sliced ruthlessly off at the shoulder and held back from her forehead by a colorful scarf; her eyes were a paler shade of blue than the waters surrounding the ship, but held nothing of their warmth.
Striding to the rail, Graciela addressed her men in a clear, carrying voice: ''Yon's a merchant vessel, laddies!,'' she said, pointing to the ship they pursued as stealthily as a cat stalking a mouse. ''She's British and fair wallowin' down in the waterline like a pregnant sea sow! They've treasure aboard, I can smell it... and we're going to rape her till she's floatin' a handspan above the waves! Who's with me?''
A gratified smile curved her lips when the captin was answered by a cry bursting from dozens of male throats: ''AYE, CAP'N!''
Graciela turned to her first mate; a tall, saturnine Spaniard whose missing left eye had been replaced by a walnut-sized ruby. ''Run up the Dutch colors, Miguel,'' she said. ''No sense letting that Britisher get the first shot.''
''Aye, cap'n,'' Miguel answered, the ruby that replaced his missing eye flashing and striking flames from the air. His dark hair, thick with grease, was plastered against his skull as he jammed a tricorner hat on his head and began issuing orders in a crisp, no-nonsense manner that marked him as a formal naval officer. Miguel had deserted from the Spanish navy... and still carried the scars to prove it.
Graciela checked the matched pair of flintlocks she carried in a shoulder sling; they would catch up to the merchantman soon... and the She-Wolf of the Caribbean was never less than fully prepared for battle.
She smiled again, thinking of the treasures to be gained soon... and that fierce grin boded very ill indeed for the She-Wolf's prey.
Elizabeth Everheart hastened to her mistress' side, carrying a basin with great difficulty. She thudded to her knees beside the cot, wincing at the impact. Immediately, the Countess of Moresby snatched up the offered basin and began noisily retching into the porcelain container.
Elizabeth sighed and tried to balance her body against the swaying of the ship, praying she wouldn't disgrace herself - again - by dropping the basin, tilting its contents onto the floor, or dumping it all over herself.
This entire trip had been nothing but a nightmare for the young lady-in-waiting. Her mistress - Margaret, Countess of Moresby - disgraced as an adulteress in London, was being sent back to her family's estates in Jamaica. Elizabeth, innocent though she was, had been forced into accompanying the Countess as a lady-in-waiting and the woman's only maidservant.
Elizabeth's family was poor and had expended all their resources and connections in getting their daughter a place at Court. It had been hoped that the girl would reward the Everheart's efforts by making influential friends who could help the family's fortunes rise; it was a stroke of bad luck for them that Elizabeth had been assigned to the adulterous Countess and subsequently condemned with her mistress, losing their only chance to win Royal favor.
When the Countess was finished being sick, Elizabeth carefully laid the basin aside, flinching when it nearly fell from her slightly shaking hand. She offered the seasick woman a drink from a leather jack of water; the Countess considered spitting the stale and musky liquid into Elizabeth's face but swallowed instead, vowing inwardly that when she reached Jamaica, her lady's maid would pay for each and every indignity she had been forced to endure on this hellish trip.
Elizabeth was unaware of the Countess' intentions. Although the woman treated her cruelly, she had no idea what her mistress had in store, nor that she had been blamed for the Countess being caught ''entertaining'' a certain young German ambassador. All she knew was that she was being sent far away from the only home she'd ever known, and that her circumstances could hardly be more wretched and soul-destroying.
Elizabeth Everheart's hair was the color of the famed Tudor line - rufous locks of red-gold curls that never stayed pinned in place, never allowed themselves to be tamed into the latest style, always flopped into her face or eyes at the worst moments. Her hair was her best feature; other than its glorious length, she was rather plain - or so she'd been told. Her wide green eyes were set a shade too far apart for true beauty, and her nose was a disgrace, far too narrow and aquiline; but her mouth was wide and generous, her cheeks charmingly dotted with pale tan freckles.
The chief curse of her young life and the cause of her most soul-blighting pain was her height. Taller than every woman at Court - in fact, standing equal or better to most of the men - Elizabeth suffered keenly, constantly embarrassed, even standing with an apologetic stoop, praying to escape notice. She hadn't been successful. Her height, combined with more-than-usual clumsines and pained self-consciousness, earned her the nickname of the ''Great Gawk.'' And gawky she was, oversized and nervous, all knees and elbows and seeming more like a bumbling half-grown puppy than a lovely young woman.
The Countess, on the other hand, was an exquisitely lovely jewel of a woman; all honey blonde hair and amethyst eyes, full bosomed and petite, seeming almost delicate. But her temper was legendary and woe betide anyone who crossed her; the lady had been referred to in whispers at Court as ''Milady Asp.'' More than one poor swain or unfortunate maid servant had learned the hard way that beneath this lady's beautiful face and body hid the soul of a hateful monster.
The Countess wiped her lips on a small piece of cloth and grimaced. Waving Elizabeth away, she muttered, ''I'd sooner have brought the King's official arse-wipe than the Great Gawk. Take yourself away, you wretched cow. And be glad I don't have the meat whipped from your lazy bones!'' When the girl hesitated, Margaret hissed, ''I SAID,'' and viciously pinched the redhead's arm, ''Go away... NOW!''
Elizabeth flushed, lurching to her feet and stumbling away, out of the cabin, awkwardly climbing the ladder up to the deck. The cabin she shared with the Countess was tiny, providing barely enough room for two small beds and a chest... so Elizabeth often found herself consigned to the upper deck, away from the irritable Countess and in the company of rough seamen - who frankly terrified her.
But then, a lot of things terrified Elizabeth, who had lived a sheltered life even within the charmingly poisonous atmosphere of Court. Despite her fears, she had an intense curiosity and a highly developed fantasy life; her romantic imagination was fed by tales she'd heard and stories she had avidly read, mostly broadsheets dealing with the lives and deaths of notorious pirates and highwaymen. Oh, to live the adventures she'd so often read about! And she did... if only in her mind.
Elizabeth scuttled to a semi-secluded corner of the deck in the shadow of the wheelhouse, ignored by the sailors who'd seen it all before. After settling down on a coil of heavy rope, she closed her eyes and began to imagine herself in a coach being held up by the dashing Dick Turpin... how his eyes would flash above his half-mask as he saw her, transformed from the Great Gawk into a dazzling beauty... his hands would tremble on the reins, his breath catch in his throat when she bowed graciously or tossed a gentle smile in his direction... he would whisk her away on the back of a massive, foam flecked charger to another life... a life filled with that mysterious thing called passion...
Elizabeth's reverie was interrupted by a shout from the lookout high above in the crow'snest. ''Ship ahoy!,'' he bawled.
The captain whipped up a brass eyeglass and trained it on the strange vessel. After studying it a moment, he said, ''She's flying Dutch colors, Mr. Nesbitt. Signal her and see how she replies.''
First Officer Nesbitt saluted briskly and stumped off, the brass buttons on his gorgeous uniform glinting in the sunlight. Elizabeth watched him a moment, then rose and gathered her voluminous skirts in both hands. As quickly as she could, she hastened belowdecks to inform her mistress of the sighting.
It was the most exciting thing that had happened since they'd left England four weeks ago... and the young woman didn't even mind when she skinned her shin, barking it on the hatch cover as she clambered down to the cabin and the Countess she served.
On the Sans Quartier, Graciela watched the signalman aboard the merchant vessel wave flags in a coded message. Her own signaler, a swarthy Portugese sailor with a twisted lip, sent a reply. In a few moments, Miguel returned to her side and spoke softly, stooping to breathe his news into her face.
''We are invited alongside, captain. They'll be easy pickings, I think.'' He grinned ferally and Graciela returned his smile.
Fingering the hilt of her cutlass, she said, ''Excellent. Have the men assembled below the rails; we don't want to lose the element of surprise. No broadsides unless she fires first; I don't want to risk that hulk burnin' to the waterline and sinkin' before we get a chance to loot her.''
Miguel eyeballed the distance between the two ships, his lips moving as he calculated silently, then the orders began to fly.
Graciela watched the activity, puffing on a lit cheroot. She'd donned her jacket, trademark boots and sash while waiting for the ship to get within hailing distance of the Britisher; now she looked the very picture of a rakish and devil-may-care buccaneer.
When the Quartier was within sight of the merchantman, the pirate captain could make out the elaborately scrolled lettering on the ship's hull: The Queen's Grace. With another fierce grin, Graciela clapped a feathered tricorn on her head and swaggered to the foredeck to wait with her men.
Soon, she thought... soon you'll be mine. She surveyed The Queen's Grace with a calculating and coveting eye; soon the blood would flow, screams would rend the air... and another vessel would fall prey to the feared She-Wolf of the Caribbean!
''May God have mercy upon your doomed souls,'' Graciela whispered...
Then it was time...
And with a blood-curdling yell, the attack